Inside the World Trade Center after the attacks
(CNN) -- The overall death toll of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center now stands at 3,001, according to the latest estimates. According to a report in USA Today, more than 1,400 of the victims were in the North Tower and nearly 600 were in the South Tower. What happened in the time between each plane's impact and each building's collapse that made the difference between life and death? CNN's Leon Harris spoke to Dennis Cauchon, who wrote the USA Today article. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
HARRIS: One of the first things that jumped out at us ... was that the death toll was largely on the floors that had suffered the impact and above. It is amazing, and it seems to be an incredible testament to the strength of [the buildings] and engineering ... that the planes did not really cause as much death below them as they did above.
CAUCHON: The North Tower is particularly amazing. Everyone on the 92nd floor died; everyone on the 91st floor lived. That is how clear the demarcation between the line of life and death.
HARRIS: That is absolutely amazing. Let's take a look at the South Tower. What's the story here?
CAUCHON: The plane struck from the 78th to the 84th floor. Only four people are known to have worked below the 78th floor who died.
HARRIS: That is absolutely amazing. For those who may have been somewhat critical of the engineering of these towers, in the wake of the collapse, it seems as though that is pretty amazing handiwork, don't you think?
CAUCHON: Both buildings held up just long enough, basically, to give every potential survivor a chance to get out.
HARRIS: There is one thing that did jump out at us: You say there was one particular stairwell open from top to bottom and hardly anyone used it.
CAUCHON: In the South Tower, one of the three stairwells was open from top to bottom. Only four people used it to go down from above the 78th floor. Other people went up that stairway in hopes of a helicopter rescue that wasn't possible.
HARRIS: That didn't happen because of the fire and the smoke up there, correct?
HARRIS: Do you have any idea why more people didn't use it?
CAUCHON: I think around the 78th floor there was moderately heavy smoke. Plus, it makes common sense: Do you descend into the fire? They answered no. No one knew the building was going to collapse. So the four people went against the advice of their colleagues and others who said come up with us; they went down.
HARRIS: Are you surprised to see these death toll numbers dropping ... as we see them drop every day now, it seems?
CAUCHON: I'm not surprised at all, because I wrote a story, which didn't get published, six days after, saying that the death toll would be about 3,000. You could tell because the companies in the building listed their missing within 48 hours. And there was no way it could be 6,500.
HARRIS: Something else, too. You say the elevator mechanics who were there, who were called in immediately after impact in the North Tower, actually left when the second impact happened. Is it clear that if they stayed there could have been a different outcome?
CAUCHON: There is no way to know what would have happened. The World Trade Center has perhaps the biggest elevator system in the world, 198 elevators, and there were 83 mechanics on duty in the building, just to maintain and modernize the system. The emergency plan calls for them all gathering in the lobby. When the second plane hit, they left the building. At the time, there were dozens of people still trapped in the elevators, and some of them ended up dying in the elevators.
HARRIS: Were any of [ the mechanics] ever called into the South Tower?
CAUCHON: Yes. Actually, the mechanics were scattered in the North and South Towers. After the first plane hit, they gathered in the lobby of the South Tower. When they were there in the lobby, the second plane hit the South Tower, and they left.
HARRIS: If you look at what happened here, historically, perhaps al Qaeda guaranteed that there would be a low death toll. That is to say, because of the bombing incident that happened there in '93, according your report, they changed all of the evacuation procedures, which almost guaranteed that more people would get out than if they had not changed those procedures, correct? Tell us about that.
CAUCHON: Exactly. In '93, when they had a bomb in the basement, there was a much less disastrous attack, but it took three or four hours to evacuate the buildings. They made all types of changes, adding loud speakers, emergency lights, intercom systems, reflector lights showing you exactly where you go, and they practiced every six months. These weren't fifth-grade fire drills anymore; they were real practices. So the evacuation was complete, where possible, in one hour, and that's pretty amazing.
HARRIS: That's amazing. Is there any thought about why there weren't more victims on the ground outside as opposed to just inside the building?
CAUCHON: We could only identify 10 bystanders outside who died. That excludes some of the firemen who did die. It is a big area, and they were just lucky.
HARRIS: It seemed there was a great deal of surprise on people's faces when these towers began to collapse. It is amazing to me there weren't more people caught up in that.
CAUCHON: At the time that the buildings collapsed, the buildings were essentially empty, except for about 500 rescue workers. Those rescue workers are really the people who died in the collapse.
HARRIS: Once again, here is another situation where it was almost guaranteed that the numbers would be lower, because if this had happened a half-hour later, how many more people do you think would have been in [the buildings]?
CAUCHON: If it had happened 15 minutes later. It happened at 8:46 a.m., and what you find out is that most people don't show up early for their job if they're scheduled to be in at 9.
HARRIS: Exactly, exactly.
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